Peter Kivisto. The Trump Phenomenon: How the Politics of Populism Won in 2016. Emerald Publishing, 2017.

It is a truism of recent political discourse that the United States has become a more polarized nation, with apparently little overlap between the values espoused by each side. Partisan sniping has been amplified by social media, and the civil niceties that help build constructive relationships between rival politicians seem almost quaintly anachronistic in today’s febrile atmosphere. As both a contributor to, and a beneficiary of, this flight from the centre ground, President Donald Trump ignited a sense of urgency in pundits and academics seeking to explain the post-2016 political landscape and its implications for American democracy. The fact that a celebrity businessman with no record of public service and no obvious aptitude for the role of senior statesman could persuade a significant portion of the American electorate to lend him their support has given rise to a flurry of theories about what motivates the “typical” Trump voter. Whereas President Barack Obama—a political outlier of a different kind—delivered a message of sweeping social change that was tethered to a policy framework of stability and incremental reform, President Trump became the unlikely face of US conservatism by promising to restore (or “make great again”) a nation whose democratic norms and institutions he seemed more than willing to trash. Trump’s election in 2016 heralded such a disorienting handbrake turn in America’s (often sluggish) journey towards the realisation of its own stated ideals (“Liberty And Justice—Huh—For All,” as Langston Hughes once wrote [224]) that the event has come to be viewed as symptomatic of a wider social malaise which commentators of all stripes have spent the last few years trying to diagnose.

One of the more enduring narratives to emerge from these analyses is the story of the alienated white working-class voter struggling to adjust to a macroeconomic climate of industrial decline and wage stagnation that has blighted parts of the US heartland in recent decades. It sits uneasily alongside an altogether bleaker theory of a white backlash—or “whitelash”—against the tectonic shifting of American values towards a more progressive and inclusive social contract that levels the playing field for traditionally marginalized groups, thereby robbing white people (most particularly heterosexual white men) of their privilege. The tension between these two theories is neatly summed up in a well-known political anecdote recounted at the beginning of Chapter 3 in Peter Kivisto’s book The Trump Phenomenon: How the Politics of Populism Won in 2016. The chapter’s title—”The Trump Voter: Labeling the Baskets”—is a reference to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s infamous speech at a fundraising event in New York in September 2016, during which she made arguably the worst (and most quotable) gaffe of her campaign by consigning half of Donald Trump’s supporters to the “basket of deplorables”—a category of people whom she dismissively branded as “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic [sic]—you name it” (35). It was to become her Marie Antoinette moment—an apparent flash of candour that confirmed widely held suspicions about her elitist disdain for ordinary folk. Yet Kivisto points out that Clinton’s speech also included a (largely unreported) reference to another metaphorical basket containing “people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change” (35). However, in what may be the most salient contribution of his short book, Kivisto argues that this presumption of “another basket” of Trump voters—comprising disadvantaged American workers crying out for a fairer deal—is largely unsupported by the evidence assembled in the wake of the election by analysts and pollsters. Challenging what he sees as an all-too-prevalent narrative of white working-class enthusiasm for Trump’s maverick economic agenda, Kivisto cites an academic review of Pew data which concludes that “Trump supporters did not identify as priority issues those that would reflect economic anxiety” (78). Rather, Kivisto’s study suggests that Trump has managed to build a formidable constituency by tapping into a strain of cultural anxiety among members of the electorate who feel threatened by the progressive drive to dismantle systemic inequalities in the US. Clinton’s disastrously misjudged use of the term “deplorables” has surely strengthened the conviction among Republican voters “that those on the left see them as gun-toting, Bible-thumping, racists, sexists, and ignoramuses” (64), but Kivisto (unlike Clinton) does not seek to mitigate the affront by shifting the focus onto the economic complaints of disgruntled Trump supporters. Instead, he presents an unflinching portrait of a sizeable minority of American voters whom he believes share an affinity (whether circumspect or overt) with the values of right-wing populism (67)—a political movement that is characterized by a deep mistrust of Others, coupled with a contempt for ineffectual elites who fail to protect “the people” (defined in ethnonationalist terms) from these supposed Others.

Often viewed as a political shape-shifter with no real ideological home, Donald Trump has latterly become the embodiment of right-wing politics in the twenty-first century. Though he repeatedly expressed an interest in running for the presidency prior to the 2016 election cycle, his earlier involvement in the Washington scene seemed motivated more by proximity to power than by fealty to a specific faction or cause. However, Kivisto points out that as far back as the 1980s there were already nascent signs of something approaching a recognizably Trumpian worldview, characterized by what he terms “a politics of resentment and anger” (29). As evidence of Trump’s bellicose political leanings, Kivisto cites some of the newspaper advertisements that the billionaire took out in the late 1980s, including his strident call to bring back the death penalty and effectively suspend the civil liberties of the “Central Park Five”—a group of Black and Latino teenagers who were convicted (wrongfully, as it turned out) of the rape and assault of a jogger in New York City. While early indications of Trump’s reactionary opinions could be ignored as long as he was not running for office, the rancorous tone of his political rallies—with their doom-laden vision of a nation beset by enemies that only a tough leader could vanquish—prompted some observers to wonder whether Trump’s worldview (such as it is) could reasonably be classified as fascist. Kivisto does not fully commit to this label, noting cautiously that there is no “organizational apparatus” at present in America that would enable fascism to take hold as a mass movement (26), but he suggests that “[r]ight-wing populism and fascism are perhaps two terms describing essentially the same phenomenon” (30)—namely a predilection for the authoritarian embrace of a strongman who will reinstate conservative values in defiance of a supposedly corrupt establishment.

Sifting through a selection of journalistic and academic commentaries on Trump’s personal, professional, and political qualities, Kivisto devotes the early part of his book to demonstrating the mismatch between Donald Trump’s value system and the democratic standards against which US presidential candidates have traditionally been measured. Chapter 2 contains a list of leadership traits (arranged into binary pairs under the headings “Civil Virtues” and “Uncivil Vices”) which Kivisto believes form the basis of the public discourse surrounding political candidates during an election campaign (10). The unflattering media portrayals of Trump as an “irresponsible, vengeful, disrespectful, dishonest” individual (21) will be familiar to even the most casual observer of recent US politics, but the chief purpose of collating these contemporaneous assessments is to showcase the surfeit of credible “anti-Trump narratives” (33) that were circulating in the public domain prior to polling day (long before the string of salacious tell-all books published by former members of Trump’s cabinet), thereby raising the question of how a candidate whose deficiencies were so comprehensively exposed could have gone on to win the presidential election. Kivisto offers readers a whistle-stop tour of some of the factors that can frustrate the electoral process—including voter suppression, felony disenfranchisement, low turnout, and the arcane Electoral College system (which deprived Hillary Clinton of victory despite her 2.9 million vote lead over Trump)—but the real nub of his investigation is the 27.1% of eligible voters (a sizeable minority of the American populace) who backed Trump at the ballot box. Focusing on demographic details such as race, age, gender, geographical location, religious affiliation, income level, and educational attainment, Kivisto uses exit poll data to compile a taxonomy of Trump’s base, revealing that his electoral support was strongest among older, small-town, white, conservative Christians. So far, so predictable. And yet, far from being financially straitened, Trump voters were typically in receipt of household incomes that exceeded the national median by about $16,000 per annum (though there was some evidence of an education gap between Trump and Clinton voters, with advanced degree holders in particular more likely to favour Clinton). Indeed, Trump prevailed in every income bracket over $50,000, but most notably in the $50,000-$99,999 category (49). Thus, Kivisto’s study seeks to challenge the pervasive notion that financial insecurity was one of the main determinants of the 2016 election result, arguing instead that it was the politics of identity which decisively paved the way for Donald Trump’s victory.

 

Right-wing Populism and Identity Politics: The “Real” People

Identity politics has traditionally been viewed as the preserve of marginalized groups and left-wing activists, but the recent populist surge on the right—aimed at policing a highly restrictive definition of the inclusive-sounding phrase “the people”—bears all the hallmarks of a fully-fledged identity movement, as Kivisto notes (31). According to the logic of right-wing populism, “the people” (a term that is often invoked alongside modifiers such as “real,” “regular,” and “true”) are identifiable by their “ordinariness,” which is to say that they generally lack the racial/ethnic/gender markers that indicate divergence from normative or symbolically privileged categories. Within this taxonomy, “real Americans” are implicitly not people of colour (i.e., they are white), they are not Muslim or atheist (i.e., they are Christian), they are not feminist (i.e., they support the patriarchy), they are not LGBTQ (i.e., they are straight and cisgender). (Kivisto offers a more complete list of binary terms on page 70.) Whereas marginal identities are recognisable by their Otherness, mainstream identities have traditionally been visible only in relief—set against the particularities of those out-groups that were historically denied full access to the ranks of the citizenry. Right-wing populists like Trump, however, garner support by shining a spotlight on “ordinary” (read: white, Christian, conservative) citizens and actively encouraging them to see themselves as a distinct and unified political grouping—a tribe set against other (implicitly lesser) tribes. As Kivisto notes, the Republican Party has a history of exploiting right-wing populist sentiment for electoral advantage—the practice was central to the “Southern strategy” of the Nixon era (90)—but it took a “serial norm-breaker” like Donald Trump (73) to make this brand of identity politics the centrepiece of a general election campaign, shattering a fragile reluctance among the political class to issue full-throated (as opposed to veiled) attacks on minorities.

Of course, race-baiting has long been a feature of Trump’s rhetorical style. Having doggedly promoted the “birther” conspiracy that aimed to undermine Barack Obama’s presidency by casting doubt on his US citizenship, Trump continued throughout his own presidential campaign to employ the kind of nativist language guaranteed to draw enthusiastic support from the radical fringes of the GOP, where “citizen opposition to Obama” had been mobilized into political activism (102). As Kivisto observes, President Obama represented a “double threat” to right-wing populist values (101), being both Other (an African American whose middle name seemed to hint at Muslim roots) and a member of the intellectual elite (a former Harvard law professor) (102). Kivisto argues that the Tea Party’s implacable resistance to an administration led by a “black usurper” (102) helped “set the stage for Trump” (105), a claim that echoes Ta-Nehisi Coates’s assertion in The Atlantic that the historic election of a Black man to the White House in 2008 became the “necessary condition” for the rise of “America’s first white president”—an absurdist term that Coates uses to highlight the unprecedented bluntness with which Trump deploys what was once “the passive power of whiteness” in Washington politics. “[W]hereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman,” Coates writes, “Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”

Donald Trump’s success at stoking resentment for his own gain has revealed worrying fault lines in the US body politic and raised questions about a segment of American society that seems more concerned with shoring up its own position than defending the democratic ideals to which the nation aspires. As Coates points out, the sheer effectiveness of Trump’s overt bigotry has confronted us with “the problematic spectacle of an American president succeeding at best in spite of his racism and possibly because of it.” Kivisto himself is keen to stress the central importance of race in the 2016 election, noting that “race mattered, and it mattered in a big way” (49), but he frames his analysis of Trump’s supporters in terms of where they sit on the democratic/authoritarian axis, citing a remark in a blog post by Jonathan Weiler (co-author with Marc Hetherington of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics): “what distinguishes Democratic from Republican voters among whites isn’t education level or income level. It’s authoritarianism” (qtd. in Kivisto 55). According to Hetherington and Weiler, a key indicator of a person’s psychological susceptibility to the lure of authoritarian politics is a dogmatic tendency to interpret the world through an oversimplified framework which venerates order and conformity and which “divide[s] social actors into us-them categories” (53)—a tendency that Kivisto believes is overrepresented among the small-town and suburban Christians who voted for Donald Trump. Kivisto is quick to temper his conclusion with the caveat that not all 62 million votes for Trump can be interpreted as expressions of an authoritarian worldview, noting that while some voters were unequivocal in their commitment to Trump, others gave him only lukewarm support. However, this qualification does not alter the basic premise of Kivisto’s thesis: that a vote for Trump amounted to an endorsement—whether tacit or unreserved—of “the politics of cruelty” (56).

Kivisto adds his voice to a growing number of journalists and social scientists who have pushed back against the hasty generalisation that Trump voters in the United States (or indeed Leave voters in the UK Brexit referendum) are part of a dispossessed group whose “ordinariness” has hitherto precluded them from engaging in the kind of rights-based protests that characterize progressive/liberal movements. He contends that right-wing populism—with its inherently discriminatory definition of “the people”—is not (or not merely) a reaction to, but an iteration of, identity politics. Moreover, he believes that the psychology of authoritarianism, along with the cultural and institutional forces that sustain it (e.g., fundamentalist churches, right-wing media outlets, etc.), played a much greater role in Donald Trump’s victory than the socio-economic circumstances of his supporters. In effect, then, what Kivisto’s analysis seems to suggest is that the Trump phenomenon is essentially a form of “cultural populism” that is sometimes confused with (or misrepresented as) “socio-economic populism.” These subsets of populism are not referenced in Kivisto’s text, but they appear in a more recent report by data analysts Jordan Kyle and Limor Gultchin entitled “Populists in Power Around the World” (2018), commissioned by the Institute for Global Change (whose chief executive is the former UK prime minister Tony Blair). Although the different strains of populism described in this report overlap in certain key respects [1], they vary in their characterization of “the true people.” Whereas leaders of right-wing cultural populist movements claim to represent mostly native-born or ethnically “pure” citizens who value traditional morality and national sovereignty, socio-economic populists offer a class-based diagnosis of the conflict between “us” and “them,” valorising hardworking members of the working class and strongly opposing “foreign influence in domestic markets,” as Kyle and Gultchin note. And while the anti-capitalist rhetoric of socio-economic populism is plainly at odds with the pro-business agenda of Donald Trump, there is a notable tendency among his supporters to self-identify as regular, hardworking people who are not enjoying the full economic benefits of their labours, as Kivisto observes (67). However, to those who would interpret Trump’s victory as a mandate from the American heartland for greater economic justice, Kivisto urges scepticism: “If right-wing populists weren’t motivated by the politics of identity, but instead were prepared to frame their grievances in class terms, why didn’t they rally around Bernie Sanders . . .?” he asks rhetorically, noting that Sanders was perceived to have prioritized wealth distribution over racial and gender politics during the 2016 Democratic primaries (69-70). The answer for Kivisto lies in the fact that the deep sense of grievance felt by Trump voters stems from a loss of cultural power—a perceived threat to “their way of life” (61)—rather than any notable loss of purchasing power. In fact, he goes further than the simple assertion that identity politics superseded economic concerns among Trump supporters, arguing that the neoliberal creed of small government and free-market economics is itself intrinsic to their tribal identity. Sure enough, according to the 2016 exit polls collated by Edison Research for the National Election Pool (the dataset from which Kivisto draws several of his key statistics), 72% of respondents who agreed with the statement that “Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals” were Trump voters. (This statistic is not cited in Kivisto’s study, but it does reinforce his theory that Trump supporters tend to place a greater degree of trust in businesspeople—and hence in the wisdom of the market—than they do in the interventions of a centralized government.)

Yet Kivisto’s insistence on a straightforward alignment between the business-friendly policies of Trump and the entrepreneurial values of Trump voters—whose willingness to act as “capitalist cheerleaders” he ascribes to the disproportionate number of small business owners within their ranks (71)—creates a rather superficial portrait of the paradigmatic Trump voter as a comfortably propertied, Mercedes-driving Republican (62) whose electoral preferences are unaffected by wider economic issues (78). “Believing they are the victims, even though they are better off economically than many Americans,” he writes, “they [i.e., right-wing populists] have an incapacity to care about the well-being of those in their midst who are less well off” (64). This description is a simplified version of the one offered by Arlie Russell Hochschild, whose fine-grained ethnographic account of a community of Tea Party supporters in Lake Charles, Louisiana (entitled Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right) is one of the background studies that Kivisto relies upon to flesh out his demographic analysis. While acknowledging the flawed lens through which many of her subjects view the world around them, Hochschild (unlike Kivisto) concedes that the political dissatisfaction among Tea Party activists “corresponds to a real structural squeeze” in American living standards (146)—even if the resentment they feel at their diminished fortunes is wholly misdirected: “If you were born before 1950, on average, the older you got, the more your income rose,” she notes. “If you were born after 1950, it did not. In fact, as economist Philip Longman argues, they are the first generation in American history to experience the kind of lifetime downward mobility ‘in which at every stage of adult life, they have less income and less net wealth than people their age ten years before’” (141). Returning to the Edison Research poll, one finds that 77% of respondents who claimed that their financial situation had deteriorated in the previous four years voted for Trump. Of course, the multi-factorial squeeze affecting working- and middle-class voters in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis tended to hit millennials harder than well-established boomers, but the era of financial uncertainty has nonetheless come at a “particularly vulnerable season of life” for older, less readily adaptable Americans, as Hochschild observes (141).

But what is most interesting about Hochschild’s study is her framing of right-wing identity politics as a “class conflict” (148), in which white Republicans—futilely chasing what they see as an ever-retreating American Dream—align themselves with avatars of the private sector (e.g., affluent businessmen like Trump) against the “line-cutters” to whom the federal government supposedly grants special treatment based on membership of a protected minority. Where Kivisto sees a culture war masquerading as an economic struggle, Hochschild sees an “undeclared class war” (151) at the heart of right-wing populist culture. This conservative strain of class war finds its expression “in the language of ‘makers’ and ‘takers’” instead of in the more conventional left-wing terminology of “haves” and “have-nots” used by the Occupy movement: “For the left, the flashpoint is up the class ladder (between the very top and the rest); for the right, it is down between the middle class and the poor. For the left, the flashpoint is centered in the private sector; for the right, in the public sector. Ironically, both call for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work” (149). Crucially, though Hochschild would agree with Kivisto’s characterisation of the typical Trump voter as reflexively capitalist, she is much quicker to emphasize the stark mismatch between the financial interests (and indeed resources) of small business owners and their “proxy allies” within the corporate elite, noting that contract and bankruptcy laws have been rewritten to help create ever larger monopolies at the expense of mom-and-pop enterprises: “Under the same banner of the ‘free market,’ the big are free to dominate the small” (151).

Of course, one could justifiably point out that the waning living standards of the working and middle classes in the late capitalist era have only reached the national agenda because a critical mass of white people have begun to suffer their effects. As Coates laments, “Black workers suffer because it was and is our lot. But when white workers suffer, something in nature has gone awry.” And although Hochschild approaches her Louisianan subjects with a fair and open mind, she points to the significant role that racism plays in the “class war” on the right wing of American politics, noting the widespread belief in “a natural hierarchy that places blacks at the bottom, and the tendency of whites to judge their own worth by distance from that bottom” (147). It was Donald Trump’s promise to defend this hierarchy, in Coates’s view, that helped marshal a “broad white coalition” comprising white Americans of every class, from the well-heeled to the underprivileged. Kivisto’s study manages to elide this point by focusing on Hillary Clinton’s larger share of the vote among lower income earners, while offering no insight into the racial or occupational/social composition of this cohort. In his eagerness to correct the media-driven fallacy that the white working class accounted for the lion’s share of Trump’s support in 2016 (49), Kivisto neglects to point out that a majority of white working-class voters (around 60%) did in fact choose Trump over Clinton, as shown in an analysis of electoral data published in 2020 by Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu (5). (It’s important to note that this data may not have been available to Kivisto at the time his book went to press.) Like Kivisto, Carnes and Lupu take issue with the “splashy rhetoric” that falsely characterizes Trump’s support base as predominantly white working-class (2), noting that a mere 31% of his supporters actually belong to this group (4). [2] However, they also note that “[t]he share of white working-class voters who cast their ballots for the Republican presidential candidate has been climbing steadily since 1992” (6). Thus, while the narrative of Trump’s unique appeal to white working-class voters may be dubious at best, there is sufficient evidence to show a long-term drift towards GOP presidential candidates among this cohort (3).

 

Disillusionment on the Left

A growing number of commentators are beginning to move beyond what Carnes and Lupu call the “Trump-centered narrative about white working-class voting” (2) to explore the theory that what tipped the scales in 2016 was not an unusually galvanized white electorate but a deeply demoralised Black one. As Malaika Jabali argues in an article entitled “The Color of Economic Anxiety,” the overall proportion of white voters who came out in support of a Republican candidate remained relatively stable between the presidential elections of 2012 (Romney v. Obama) and 2016 (Trump v. Clinton) [3], whereas Black voter turnout (particularly in key states like Michigan) fell during the same period—a development which likely proved crucial to Trump’s victory. Kivisto makes a similar point when he highlights the degree of non-participation by certain sections of the electorate, citing a 2016 economic study which found that unemployed men (a category that includes a disproportionate number of African Americans) exhibit a lower than average tendency towards political engagement (41). He would also agree with Jabali’s assertion that the avid media interest in the electoral ramifications of white economic anxiety has served to obscure the problem of low turnout among minority populations (who tend to vote Democrat in greater numbers). Citing the need for a more balanced “interpretive framework” through which to view recent political events, Kivisto exhorts journalists and social scientists to “pay greater attention” to those citizens who were “sufficiently alienated from the American political system that they opted for exit rather than voice” (79). Two years into Trump’s presidency, a New York Times article entitled “The Missing Obama Millions” addressed this question head-on. Using data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, the authors of the piece (McElwee, Rhodes, Schaffner, and Fraga) compared the relative influence of Obama-to-Trump “switchers” (i.e., the mostly white cohort who switched allegiance from Obama to Trump between the elections of 2012 and 2016) and previously Democratic “non-voters” (i.e., those who supported Obama in 2012 but who did not participate in the 2016 election). While their research does not support Jabali’s claim that white Obama-to-Trump voters constitute a “vanishingly small” proportion of the electorate (in fact, they number roughly 5 million, which equates to 12% of the total number of white voters who supported Obama in 2012 [4]), it does suggest that a corresponding dip in non-white voter turnout may have made an underappreciated difference in 2016’s tight election race. Of the 4.4 million Obama voters who failed to show up at the polls in 2016, 51% were people of colour, and 36% (1.6 million) were African American—a startling statistic when one considers that this cohort accounted for only 12% of the total electorate, according to Philip Bump of the Washington Post.

The factors affecting electoral turnout can be structural (e.g., partisan attempts at voter suppression and gerrymandering); demographic (e.g., a voter’s education, age, income, etc.); or one of a constellation of intangibles such as “trust in others,” “civic duty,” or a sense of “political efficacy” (Kivisto 41-42). Although the variables that make up the last category may be harder to measure, Malaika Jabali’s field research in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (a state which Clinton lost by only 22,748 votes) leads her to speculate that the falloff in Black support for the Democratic Party may have had as much to do with deep-rooted shifts in voter sentiment as with specific suppression tactics (though the latter certainly represent a significant challenge for minority voters). Painting a vivid picture of the hollowed-out industrial heartland from an underreported African American perspective, Jabali quotes Milwaukee County Alderman Khalif Rainey’s musings on some of the underlying causes of voter apathy in his community: “Did we lose confidence in the power or the ability of getting things done by a President? Were we coming off of a hangover or fatigue? Do we still have confidence in democracy at all?” The context for these searching questions was the outbreak of police violence and civil unrest in Milwaukee in the summer preceding the 2016 election. As Jabali notes, back in the days when manufacturing jobs were more plentiful, “The city’s culture of anti-black police violence could be mitigated some by its economic opportunities,” but “the jobs left and the police presence remained.” A familiar working-class tragedy—that of a changing labour market in which unionised employment is gradually replaced by insecure, short-term contracts (or outright joblessness)—was compounded in predominantly Black urban districts by decades of racial inequality, leading to problems such as poor housing and a deep communal mistrust of law enforcement agencies. [5] And while African American Milwaukeeans could generally be relied upon to back the Democratic Party in elections, a combination of long-standing voter fatigue and scepticism of Hillary Clinton’s bona fides created a “perfect storm” that depressed turnout in 2016 among this previously loyal cohort, according to Jabali. Still suffering the effects of decades of privatization and mass incarceration (policies that had been pursued by both Republican and Democratic governments, including Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s), a significant number of Black city-dwellers declined to show up at the polls for a party that seemed increasingly to take their votes for granted (Jabali).

Although he acknowledges the consequences of voter alienation in 2016, Kivisto proffers no theory on why Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in particular failed to excite certain sections of the Democratic base. That Clinton’s policy positions were far more progressive than Trump’s is not a matter of serious dispute (and Kivisto is right to point an accusing finger at the news media’s “exceedingly light” coverage of policy issues [80]), but her bruising battle against a self-declared socialist in the Democratic primary, coupled with her perceived connection to her husband’s somewhat tarnished brand of philanthrocapitalism, left her open to accusations that she was just another business-friendly Washington insider—a charge that arguably hurt her standing among left-leaning Democrats, while currying no favour with right-wing voters (whose implacable loathing of the Clintons has deep roots in the conspiracy-soaked fringes of the Republican Party). As Anand Giridharadas notes in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, the 2016 election was seen in some quarters as “a referendum on Clintonism” (206), the core values of which amounted to a kind of compassionate corporatism, or a “blurring of public good and private desire” (207). With characteristic bad faith, Trump sought to highlight the weaknesses in Clinton’s “triangulating” form of centre-left politics (238), sensing in the public mood “an intuition that those people who believed you could crusade for justice and get super-rich and save lives and be very powerful and give a lot back, that you could have it all and then some, were phonies. He had harnessed these feelings, to the bafflement of many, despite embodying the pseudo-concern he decried” (Giridharadas 206). Trump has always instinctively understood how to make political hay by indulging people’s worst suspicions about the hypocrisy of his political opponents. Renowned journalist and author Bob Woodward notes in Fear: Trump in the White House that there was a concerted effort within the Trump campaign (spearheaded by Steve Bannon) to paint Hillary Clinton as an agent of the “status quo” (15) whose connections to Wall Street bankers (36) and the elites of “global finance” (134) supposedly set her in conflict with the interests of ordinary American workers. Trump, by contrast, managed to wear his vast privilege as a badge of honour, styling himself as the voice of home-grown American enterprise and smearing Clinton as an out-of-touch “globalist” whose proximity to wealth and power supposedly rendered her pronouncements on social justice little more than empty pieties.

 

Moral Authority: Virtue, Vice, and Political Calculus

The phrase “virtue signalling” is a favourite term of abuse among right-wing commentators precisely because it reduces liberal ideals to a set of formulaic gestures without an authentic core. As Arlie Russell Hochschild’s study shows, conservative Christians have seen a steep decline in their moral standing since the 1960s in particular, and many have watched with growing unease as the values of anti-discrimination and equality—the “PC” gospel preached by their Democratic rivals—have gained more widespread acceptance. A revealing exchange between Hochschild and a Trump supporter at a rally in New Orleans—quoted on page 64 of Kivisto’s book—highlights the collective mood of defensiveness that Trump’s political rhetoric is designed to alleviate: “‘People think we’re not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees,’ one man told me. ‘But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them’” (Hochschild 227). Struggling to escape the charge that they cannot be “good people” if they withhold their compassion from those outside their own close-knit communities, these rally-goers seek catharsis in Trump’s propaganda war against the alleged (and sometimes actual) duplicity of liberal leaders who dare to police the morals of “ordinary” American citizens while apparently being driven by the same self-serving impulses as everyone else. Much of Trump’s appeal lies in his remorseless ability to deflect criticism by turning the conversation to his critics’ own flaws—whether real or (very often) concocted. Indeed, according to Tony Schwartz (ghost-writer of Trump’s book The Art of the Deal), the fact that Trump is not even minimally “constrained by the truth” (qtd. in Kivisto 20) gives him a distinct advantage in his dealings with others (including, one would imagine, the conspicuously loyal cadre of Republican representatives who continue to stand foursquare behind him, despite any private misgivings they may have). With the centre of gravity of the Democratic Party beginning to shift leftwards—partly in reaction to developments on the right—Trump has turned his attention to what he regards as the chinks in the moral armour of his new opponents. [6] Despite having used his own inauguration speech to deliver an astoundingly bleak assessment of the state of the nation, Trump had no hesitation in launching a Twitter tirade in 2019 against four congresswomen of colour from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party (known collectively as “the Squad”) for daring to highlight deficiencies in the US system (Rogers and Fandos). Whereas Clinton’s proximity to the Davos jet-set opened her up to charges of elitism, it was the Squad’s racial heritage that disqualified them in Trump’s eyes from speaking on behalf of the American people. His infamous suggestion that the congresswomen “go back and help fix” the countries from which they (or, in three out of four cases, their parents) originally came is a textbook example of racism, but it also serves the same basic function as all of Trump’s ad hominem attacks, namely, to deprive his opponents of the authority needed to advance their agenda. According to politics professor Jan-Werner Müller (whose short guide What Is Populism? provides background material for Kivisto’s own study), it is typical of populist politicians to “personalize and moralize political conflict” and to “denounce all other contenders for power as fundamentally illegitimate” (106). Indeed, one of the defining features of populism is its “claim to exclusive moral representation” (Müller 38), which amounts to a rejection of the democratic principle “that contrary opinions are legitimate, that society cannot be represented without remainder” (40). Trump, whose personal attacks are merely an extreme example of the populist tactic of discrediting one’s opponent (Müller 106), envisions his political adversaries not as fellow Americans with “competing visions of the good life” but as “disgusting” enemies to be vanquished “at all costs” (Kivisto 29).

One might reasonably wonder whether the tawdriness of the president’s constant feuding with his “enemies” carries the risk of alienating an even greater number of people than it attracts. How can Trump’s own moral authority [7] withstand these unedifying skirmishes, especially as they seem so transparently designed to deflect attention from his many shortcomings? Certainly, Trump has—from the very outset—been an unpopular president, whose lacklustre approval ratings across a range of indicators (trustworthiness, communication skills, temperamental suitability, etc.) reveal a mood of general disillusionment among the American public (Kivisto 111). Kivisto observes that shortly after the president’s inauguration there was already some evidence that the “anti-Trump narratives” detailed in Chapter 2 were beginning to overtake “the narrative that Trump’s supporters would like to advance” (110-11). Jan-Werner Müller, however, sounds a note of caution. His research into the dynamics of populism challenges the widely held assumption that populist administrations are necessarily doomed to collapse quickly under the weight of their own contradictions. Though they express a puritanical antipathy to the corrupt practices of their political foes—promising to “drain the swamp,” in Trump’s jargon—populist leaders are granted a generous degree of leeway by their adherents once they’ve attained power. The explanation for this double standard is spelled out in Müller’s book: “Clearly, the perception among supporters of populists is that corruption and cronyism are not genuine problems as long as they look like measures pursued for the sake of a moral, hardworking ‘us’ and not for the immoral or even foreign ‘them.’ Hence it is a pious hope for liberals to think that all they have to do is expose corruption to discredit populists” (47-48). (The impeachment of Donald Trump—which became something of a rote exercise, instead of the silver bullet many Democrats had hoped for—offers a case in point.)

Indeed, while he warns against complacency (112), Kivisto is himself in danger of underestimating the political payoff from Trump’s willingness to snub democratic norms and procedures in the name of the so-called true people. His claim that the media revelations about Trump’s unfitness for office simply “did not percolate deeply enough into the electorate to prevent Trump from being elected” (34) downplays the tolerance among sizeable portions of the electorate for brazen demagoguery as a means of achieving partisan goals. Kivisto somewhat simplistically presents election campaigns as performative struggles between clearly delineated “virtues” and “vices “—e.g., responsible vs. irresponsible, knowledgeable vs. ill-informed, reasonable vs. irrational, etc. (10)—with candidates attempting to accumulate credit on the “virtuous” side of the ledger while exposing (or hoping that the media will expose) their opponents’ shortcomings. This description of the electoral process—which Kivisto (quoting Jeffrey C. Alexander) calls “working the binaries” (33)—is valid up to a point; however, such a neat schema presumes that a set of universally accepted democratic values can be legibly transposed onto the flesh-and-blood political actors who present themselves to the voting public. While it appears obvious that a “responsible” leader is preferable to an “irresponsible” one, voters who perceive a candidate through the distorting prism of gender bias, for example, may not frame their judgements in such clear-cut terms. “Responsibility” can variously come across as noble accountability or schoolmarmish conformity to the rules, depending on whether the candidate in question is a man or a woman. (When commenting on the decision of former UK prime minister David Cameron to shorten the summer parliamentary recess whilst in office, current PM Boris Johnson reached for the bizarrely gendered insult “girly swot” [Walker] to mock what he saw as an overly feminine degree of punctiliousness in Cameron—a character flaw which the cheerfully shambolic Johnson could never be accused of possessing.) Similarly, the rational choice between a “respectful” and a “disrespectful” leader seems self-evident, but a candidate’s racial heritage can play a big part in determining just how strictly he or she will be held to behavioural norms—even by moderate voters. (As Coates remarks acidly, “The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape . . . , fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House.”)

Thus, even among voters who possess a high degree of civic awareness and political insight—attributes which, according to Kivisto, a significant number of Americans lack when compared to their counterparts in other advanced democracies (44)—the question of fitness for office is never actually posed in the schematic fashion suggested on page 10 of Kivisto’s book but is instead filtered through a whole range of biases and assumptions about the irreducibly embodied identities of the political contenders. This is not a point with which I think Kivisto would disagree, but his framing of Trump’s victory as an irrational rejection of cherished democratic ideals leads him to the inevitable conclusion that the Trump phenomenon is essentially a pathology rooted in the “authoritarian personality” of his supporters (52) and underpinned by the insular worldview of the institutions to which they are affiliated (for how else could such a patently unsuitable candidate have prevailed?). Chapter 4, entitled “Institutional Openings to Authoritarianism,” examines the social and cultural forces that Kivisto believes have shaped (or failed to correct) the authoritarian mindset of those who voted for Trump. He begins by rebuking certain sections of the mainstream media (particularly TV news) for their role in normalising Trump’s candidacy and for neglecting the duty of the fourth estate to inform and educate the electorate. But the main focus of this chapter is the authoritarian climate that prevails in red-state America, sustained by several key institutional pillars. They include Fox News (which acts as a hyper-partisan platform for the dissemination of right-wing propaganda); fundamentalist Christian churches (whose intolerance of other faiths translates to anti-pluralism in the political sphere); the National Rifle Association (which deliberately stokes a climate of fear and racial tension in order to justify its uncompromising interpretation of the Second Amendment); and the Republican Party itself (which has undergone an ignominious transformation from “the party of Lincoln to the party of the white backlash” [87]). Kivisto locates the beating heart of Trump’s base at the nexus of these bastions of absolutism: specifically, in the populist Tea Party movement that emerged to counter the centre-left policies of the Obama administration with an extreme brand of fiscal conservatism founded on a literalist reading of the Constitution (104). Summing up the roots of the Trump phenomenon, Kivisto quotes journalist Kate Aronoff: “The infrastructure that paved Trump’s road to electoral success was built largely by the Tea Party” (105).

There can be no mistaking Trump’s autocratic style, which is variously manifested in his strongman image, his admiration for foreign despots, his contempt for checks on executive power, and his habit of “discrediting those who dissent from [his] construal of the people,” to borrow a phrase from Müller (48). And it’s unquestionable that he relies heavily on the support of voters who ally themselves with organisations that promote absolutist ideologies of one kind or another. (Hochschild’s study shows that the “deep story” of conservative America is permeated by precisely those institutional influences identified in Chapter 4 of Kivisto’s book.) However, the authoritarian tendencies of Trump and his followers do not always reflect each other with perfect symmetry. Members of the evangelical Christian community profess a moral code in diametric opposition to the libertine values that have shaped Trump’s personal life (the details of which are well-documented, not least in the Access Hollywood tape that became headline news shortly before the 2016 election). In seeking to explain how a “religiously illiterate” candidate managed to win the overwhelming approval of the religious right (99), Kivisto argues that Christian pastors preaching the “prosperity gospel” detected a kindred entrepreneurial spirit in Trump, whose flashy “salesmanship” and patriarchal control of his family business offer significant points of overlap between two apparently antithetical value systems (100). However, while Christian conservatives are certainly impressed by Trump’s financial success (Hochschild 229), their staunch support is based on much more than a shared “embrace of a luxury lifestyle” (Kivisto 100). Kivisto comes closer to the mark when he suggests that some evangelicals “believe that God works in mysterious ways and sometimes uses nonbelievers to advance the faith” (100), but he remains mysteriously silent on the specific inducements held out to evangelicals during the 2016 presidential campaign. After all, it was Trump’s unapologetic pledge to keep at bay the forces of liberalism—most notably by drawing up a list of suitably conservative Supreme Court justice nominees, but also by rhetorically attacking the shibboleths of liberal morality known as political correctness (Hochschild 227)—that provided white evangelicals with their most powerful incentive to forgive Trump’s “sinful” behaviour and accept him as a secular champion of Christian values. As Müller observes, populists do not necessarily have to mirror or “embody” the people they represent (35); what matters is that the leader “correctly discerns what we correctly think . . .” (34). A 2018 opinion piece written for the New York Times by David Brody, host of “Faith Nation” on the Christian Broadcasting Network, spells out the quid pro quo that underlies the cosy relationship between the irreverent New York billionaire and his small-town evangelical following (while also weakly attempting to fend off the charge that their political rapport is “transactional”). In exchange for their electoral support, Trump has given evangelicals “the courts, pro-life policies, the . . . Embassy in Jerusalem, and religious liberty issues, just to name a few” (Brody). The extent of Trump’s blatant clientelism (a typical feature of populists who gain power, according to Müller) prompts Brody to confer on Trump “the unofficial label of ‘most evangelical-friendly United States president ever.’” More effective (and therefore more “moral”) than choosing the outwardly “‘moral’ candidate,” Brody insists, is keeping an eye firmly on “the larger battle over control of the culture.” This increasingly pragmatic attitude among white evangelical Protestants in particular is confirmed in studies conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, whose CEO Robert P. Jones notes that in recent years the political calculus of evangelical voters has shifted “from a principled basis to more of a utilitarian ethic, where the ends justify the means” (qtd. in Goodstein).

 

Trumpian Economics

As well as underplaying the cynical trade-offs made by evangelical Christians who supported Trump, Kivisto has very little to say on the apparent mismatch between the Tea Party’s quest for economic freedom and the protectionist strategies promoted by Trump during his 2016 campaign. [8] It’s true that anti-tax radicals within the Tea Party found common cause with Trump in their mutual opposition to the legislative agenda of Barack Obama (who was histrionically labelled a “socialist” by activists within the movement), but Trump’s mixed messages on economic policy did not always soothe the nerves of the influential donors and lobbyists that helped fund the Tea Party’s political endeavours. For example, the Club for Growth—one of the fiscally conservative advocacy groups that Kivisto mentions in his discussion of the Tea Party’s financial backers (103)—was sufficiently spooked by Trump’s 2016 policy platform that its super PAC arm launched a negative advertising campaign in an attempt to stymie his bid for the Republican nomination. The group’s president even called Trump a “big-government liberal” who was operating a “shell game” that would damage the GOP (qtd. in Haberman). (The group later revised its assessment of Trump and endorsed him for re-election in 2020.) Historian Nancy MacLean, whose book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America examines the decades-long efforts of rich libertarians to bend the US political system to their free-market agenda, observes that Trump’s strategy during the Republican primaries was to dismiss his rivals as stooges of the donor class (xxix). Trump’s economic pitch went far beyond the drily corporatist proposition identified in Kivisto’s book—i.e., that a candidate with supposedly strong business credentials would surround himself with the most efficient personnel and thereby curtail the excesses of big government (71). A recurrent theme at Trump rallies was the promised restoration of America’s national pride through the revival of its industrial heartlands—a vision which seemed to imply “curbs on the very agenda the [Republican] party’s front-runners were promoting: no more free-trade deals that shuttered American factories . . .” (MacLean xxix). The gap between Trump’s campaign speeches and his actual policy decisions—which have generally favoured the one percenters over ordinary Americans—has become plainly apparent since his election, but it’s nonetheless odd that Kivisto would attempt to dismantle the myth of Trump’s “working-class” base while so studiously ignoring the campaign rhetoric that gave a veneer of credibility to this narrative. [9]

Shortly after the 2016 election, Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, wrote an article in Vox that examined Trump’s populist promises on the campaign trail, focusing particularly on his speeches in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. The article offers a clue to the emergence of a socio-economic rationalization (as opposed to an exclusively nativist or racist one) for Trump’s surprise victory. As Konczal points out, Trump talked about “jobs, jobs, and more jobs,” portraying himself as the defender of America’s indigenous manufacturing sector in an era of hostile global trading conditions. At a rally in Michigan, for example, he railed against the flight of US companies overseas: “The political class in Washington has betrayed you. They’ve uprooted your jobs, and your communities, and shipped your wealth all over the world. They put new skyscrapers up in Beijing while your factories in Michigan crumbled. I will end the theft of American prosperity. I will fight for every last Michigan job” (qtd. in Konczal). And in Pennsylvania, Trump “claimed to feel his audience’s pain”—to borrow Nancy MacLean’s phrase (xxix)—by commiserating with workers who found themselves at the sharp end of an international financial system that seemed rigged in favour of elites: “Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache” (qtd. in Konczal). Kivisto’s assertion that Trump’s small-government ideology makes him the natural heir to Ronald Reagan’s “neoliberal” mantle (71) glosses over the tension between the isolationist logic of Trump’s “America First” platform and the neoliberal bias towards ever more integrated global markets.

To appreciate just how far Trump’s stance on trade diverges from the buccaneering spirit of neoliberalism, one need only look at an address given in 1981 by President Reagan’s close ally Margaret Thatcher to a group of bankers assembled in London’s Guildhall. (Admittedly, this type of corporate gathering represents a very different milieu from the typical Trump rally, but the message that Thatcher delivered there was the same one she gave in a variety of forums throughout her tenure as UK prime minister). “In industry just as in capital markets there is ‘One World,’” she declared approvingly. “Moved by the invisible hand of competitive advantage, business enterprises now pay scant regard to national boundaries in their pursuit of efficient production.” And although the new trading realities created challenges for many countries, rich and poor, Thatcher was firm in her conviction that adaptability was the key to overcoming these challenges, noting that, “None can find sustainable jobs if we try to shield themselves [sic] from change.” Trump, by contrast, has taken a rhetorical position which is “unapologetically against trade that harms American workers” (Konczal). Naturally, there’s considerable scepticism about the sincerity of a businessman-turned-politician who purports to stand up for the livelihoods of workers over the efficiencies of the free market. [10] His contrarian stance comes at a time when most mainstream politicians—including Democrats—have resigned themselves to the inconvenient truth that those “white, male, breadwinning, manufacturing” jobs (Konczal) that were once a staple of the Rust Belt economy have become less viable in advanced countries with complex international supply chains and increasingly automated production lines. Whether out of ignorance or political expediency (or both), Trump’s “America First” mantra ignores the complexities that must be faced by politicians who are actually serious about ameliorating the fortunes of blue-collar workers. Instead, as Konczal notes, “He just declares that you will have a high-paying manufacturing job when he is president.”

Trump’s belief in the tactical benefits of imposing tariffs on foreign imports signals an eccentric approach to trade and foreign policy that rejects the long-standing wisdom that America’s economic fortunes are tied to the global spread of democracy and the liberalization of international markets. As Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman points out, “Leading figures in both parties—from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan through to the Bushes and Clintons—agreed that it was in US interests to promote free trade and democracy around the world. Donald Trump has taken an axe to this Washington consensus.” One of the most fascinating aspects of Bob Woodward’s book Fear is its revelation of the “Groundhog Day-like” rows on trade (218) that took place in the first year of the Trump administration between the “Wall Street Wing” of the executive branch (140), headed up by the director of the National Economic Council (NEC), Gary Cohn (a former Goldman Sachs president and Clinton supporter), and a rival anti-free trade faction led by the director of the National Trade Council, Peter Navarro. Woodward’s detailed account shows how the “Wall Street Wing” sought to cajole, browbeat, and ultimately circumvent Trump and his acolytes in a bid to neutralize what they saw as a disastrously misinformed obsession with eliminating US trade deficits—even at the expense of key foreign alliances. Unmoved by the benefits of cheap imports to American consumers and businesses, Trump reportedly “clung to an outdated view of America—locomotives, factories with huge smokestacks, workers busy on assembly lines” (137), and refused to budge from his position even when Gary Cohn presented him with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing a decline in the proportion of American workers who aspired to take up factory jobs (138). In response to questions from an increasingly exasperated Cohn about the source of his idiosyncratic beliefs, Trump simply replied, “I’ve had these views for 30 years” (138).

It’s quite possible that Trump’s hostility to free trade has less to do with what Cohn calls the president’s “Norman Rockwell view of America” (qtd. in Woodward 136) and more to do with his chauvinistic need to dominate other nations in the same way he dominates his rivals in business and politics. He certainly demonstrates little patience with the cooperative multilateralism of the “rules-based, international democratic order” (219) under which the global economy operates. [11] Whatever the basis of Trump’s isolationist approach, it seems clear that it cannot easily be shoehorned into the broader neoliberal perspective exemplified by Wall Street executives like Cohn, who see the US as “a trade-based economy” dependent on “[f]ree, fair and open trade” and a steady supply of immigrant labour (Woodward 56). Kivisto’s attempt to depict Trump as a garden-variety neoliberal who believes “that markets should replace the state” (71) does not adequately take account of the president’s willingness to use the protectionist powers of the state to recalibrate (or destabilize) America’s relationships with its trading partners. What neoliberals do share with Trump, however, is a fondness for tax cuts and deregulation. As Woodward notes, Trump may have been impervious to Cohn’s lectures on the importance of international trade, but he was more than receptive to his suggestions for reforming the tax code and curbing government overreach (55). In particular, Cohn argued in favour of significantly reducing America’s corporate tax rate in order to stem the practice of “inversion,” i.e., the relocation of a company’s legal headquarters to another jurisdiction as a means of reducing its overall tax liability (57). However, the precise details of the bill that became known as the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 were of little interest to Trump, according to Woodward’s sources. All that really mattered was how he could “sell” the legislation to his supporters (291): “Ultimately what does it mean? It means jobs, jobs, jobs” (Trump, qtd. in Woodward 296).

 

An Alliance of Unequals: Power and the People

As Müller notes, populist leaders feel no particular duty to ideological consistency; they need only present themselves as “the sole legitimate representative of the common good” (36)—a paradigm that can be manipulated at will precisely because their “central symbolic statement” is “virtually empty. What does ‘Make America Great Again’ actually mean, other than that the people have been betrayed by elites and that anybody who opposes Trump must also somehow be against ‘American Greatness’?” (38). Those who interpret Trump’s mission to “Make America Great Again” as a shameless swindle of the working class often cite the disparity between the president’s pro-worker rhetoric and his corporate-friendly policies as evidence that he is “scamming his supporters” (Krugman). Kivisto, on the other hand, simply ignores Trump’s rhetorical overtures to blue-collar workers and focuses on the president’s larger support base among middle-income earners and small business owners whose capitalist priorities mirror his own. Both of these perspectives have their limitations, however. Paul Krugman is largely correct in his judgment that Trump’s policy agenda is “relentlessly anti-worker,” but his analysis of the bait-and-switch con supposedly perpetrated against Trump’s working-class supporters assumes a broad, left-leaning consensus about the types of policies that would most benefit ordinary workers—e.g., more workplace regulation, more labour representatives at cabinet, etc. Yet Trump has avoided making references to structural inequalities and dwindling worker entitlements precisely because he understands that his (mostly white) audience would not respond positively to attacks on rich people or class-based proposals for wealth distribution (Konczal). If, as Carnes and Lupu argue, Trump’s success with white working-class voters is actually part of a long-term shift by this cohort towards supporting Republican presidential candidates, then “[a]nalysts wondering ‘why the white, working class voted for Trump’ would do well to remember that the white working class also voted for Romney, Reagan, and both Bushes, and consider why these more conventional Republican candidates had been steadily gaining ground among white working-class voters well before Trump” (6). Kivisto skirts this question by focusing on the fact that “[t]he income category in which the Trump margin was the greatest was between $50,000 and $99,999” (49)—i.e., those on comfortable (but not extravagant) incomes. Moreover, he points out that right-wing voters tend to exhibit a receptiveness towards business elites that is matched by an equal but opposite hostility to “political and intellectual elites” (71), but his rationale for this bias—which boils down to a combination of “anti-intellectualism” (55) and an ideological loyalty to capitalism—is partial at best. Other commentators like Konczal invoke the “logic of aspiration” to explain why modestly-waged Republicans seem to attach greater importance to a political candidate’s material success than to their qualifications or expertise. Quoting law professor Joan C. Williams, Konczal suggests that the American Dream for so-called regular folk is not to enter the world of elite professionals, with their “different food, family, and friendship patterns,” but to attain financial success from within the familiar cultural surroundings of their own “class milieu.” By this rather superficial logic, Trump’s conspicuous lack of social graces only adds to his mass appeal. (Putting an even finer point on it, Ed Smith of the New Statesman snidely suggests that Donald Trump is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person.”)

As tempting as it might be to reach for crude class stereotypes to justify the Republican Party’s continued popularity with “ordinary” white people, it’s worth examining Arlie Russell Hochschild’s more considered explanation of why right-wing voters of moderate means are so keen to lend electoral support to members of the super-rich and their political allies. According to Hochschild, the propensity among Republican voters to favour business-friendly candidates is not purely a function of entrepreneurial aspiration or shared economic interests (though they play a role) but is indicative of a politically conservative understanding of the difficulties facing the nation state in a rapidly changing world. “In an age of extreme automation and globalization, how can the 90 percent for whom income is stagnant or falling respond?” Hochschild asks. “For the Tea Party, the answer is to circle the wagons around family and church, and to get on bended knee to multinational companies to lure them to you from wherever they are” (236). Whereas the liberal left sees economic opportunity as a by-product of judicious public investment and regulatory stability, those located on the right of the political spectrum seek to weather “the winds of change and competition” (to borrow Thatcher’s words) by taking refuge in the munificence of superrich corporations that hold out the promise of local employment and economic growth in exchange for tax breaks, lax regulation, and other enticements. Thus, what Kivisto perceives as an ideological attachment to capitalism by those who have done relatively well from the system is presented more generously by Hochschild as a hardnosed adaptation to an economic model whose workings are beyond the control of most American citizens (even those on incomes above the national median). Kivisto’s claim that Tea Party sympathizers regard corporate profits as “fair and reasonable” is undoubtedly true (104), but their attitude reflects more than just a basic desire to protect their wealth from the clutches of the IRS (as important as that motivation may be). For many voters outside America’s plutocratic circles, bumper corporate profits are seen as an inescapable part of the Faustian pact between global companies and the local communities in which they deign to set up shop. It’s an asymmetric partnership that relies heavily upon the willingness of civil authorities to “sweeten the deal,” as one of Hochschild’s interviewees puts it (94). Thus, even the classic right-wing preference for smaller government is not as clear-cut as Kivisto implies (104), muddied as it is by a countermanding expectation that political representatives proactively court the attentions of a highly mobile and ever more dominant multinational sector. Hochschild observes that “both [the left and the right] respond to the new challenge of global capitalism with a call for activist government, but activist about different things. When [former Republican governor] Bobby Jindal gave $1.6 billion of Louisiana taxpayer money as ‘incentives’ to private corporations, he was being a government activist” (237). Kivisto only briefly acknowledges some of the grim trade-offs implicit in the right-wing embrace of corporate investment; he notes, for example, that because they are a “source of good jobs,” the “corporate polluters” of the petrochemical industry are tolerated as a “necessary evil” (rather than an unalloyed boon) by Louisiana Tea Party activists who must themselves bear the risks associated with subpar environmental standards (61). For the most part, however, Kivisto skirts the economic pressures under which conservative-leaning communities come to view personal prosperity and protective government regulation as essentially incompatible goals; instead, he falls back on cultural or psychological explanations for their electoral choices, citing, for example, the conservative tendency to look to “fundamentalist Christianity rather than to science for answers” (62). And while he is right to resist efforts by certain sections of the media to entirely reframe the prejudices of right-wing populists as more benign and socially acceptable “questions of material interests” (Müller 92), Kivisto is in danger of erring too far in the other direction by diagnosing Trump voters with a collective flaw known as the “authoritarian personality”—an interpretive catch-all that evades the more difficult task of unpacking what Müller describes as “the concerns of populist voters understood as free and equal citizens, not as pathological cases of men and women driven by frustration, anger, and resentment” (103).

Political scientist Katherine J. Cramer has attempted to unpick the tangled motivations that lie beneath “the politics of resentment” in a recent book of the same name, which Kivisto cites (along with Hochschild’s work) as a key source. In summarising Cramer’s detailed research into the rural-urban divide in the key battleground state of Wisconsin, Kivisto reports that the political attitudes of rural Wisconsinites (who lean towards the conservative end of the spectrum) are shaped “more by concerns about identity—rural and white—than by specific issues” (66). Yet Cramer is careful not to postulate “identity” as a mode of political engagement that can be separated out from some notionally purer understanding of the “issues” of the day. (The author freely acknowledges the role that her own urban identity plays in shaping her perceptions of the world [31].) Rather, the overlapping identities of geography and social class are significant because they function “as a lens through which people interpret politics. . . . In this book,” Cramer continues, “I show how consciousness as a rural resident itself can make the stands that people take in these [political] conflicts seem appropriate and natural” (12). Far from being uninterested in the particulars of government policy, her subjects are keen to share their views on a range of issues that affect their lives, including taxes, school funding, social welfare, local industry, and immigration. And while the statistical evidence that Cramer sets out in Chapter Four does not necessarily support their perception that they are on the wrong side of an economic divide between the small towns of northern Wisconsin and the main metro areas of Milwaukee and Madison, there is enough evidence of rural disadvantage for Cramer to “take their political claims seriously,” if not “at face value,” to quote Müller’s advice for engaging with populists (84). The fact that income inequality is actually higher in urban centres than among rural populations (Cramer 104), or that rural counties pay less in taxes per person than metropolitan districts (93), does not negate the specific economic burdens borne by rural residents, who enjoy fewer employment opportunities (93) and often pay higher prices for basics such as food, electricity, mortgage rates, and healthcare premiums (101), while relying on a smaller tax base for the provision of local services (98). Like Hochschild, Cramer situates the subjective (and frequently misdirected) resentments of conservative voters within the context of a “changing macro environment” that is objectively challenging (98), noting that the long-term shift from an agrarian-based economy to alternatives such as tourism, forestry, services, and retail has been a bumpy road for many parts of the American heartland. Thus, “the many difficulties rural places and rural residents face in the contemporary economy make perceptions of injustice understandable” (104), even if their assumptions about the relative ease of city life are not based in fact. Yet when Kivisto talks about the sense of “victimhood” that forms part of rural identity in northern Wisconsin (66), he mentions none of the economic factors that Cramer cites to contextualize her observations about her subjects’ stridently anti-urban and anti-government biases. His explanation for the rise of right-wing populism in the United States rests on his conviction that it is fuelled not by economics, but by politics—specifically the politics of identity (rural, white, older, Christian). Whereas Hillary Clinton sorted Trump voters into two distinct “baskets”—those resentful of cultural difference (the “deplorables”) and those concerned about the economic direction of the country (known in media circles as the “left behinds”)—Kivisto could find no evidence that the latter category played a significant role in the election of Trump.

 

The Dark Art of Populism: A Politics of Division

There is much that The Trump Phenomenon gets right. Its central thesis—that the media’s characterization of Trump’s base as predominantly working-class is false—has been widely corroborated by subsequent studies. The book also resists the pervasive notion that Donald Trump’s election in 2016 sprang out of nowhere—a myth that was bolstered by Trump’s brash image as an insurgent candidate bursting through the ranks of a supposedly more genteel and temperate Republican Party. Instead, while emphasizing that Trump is not “a normal politician” (79), Kivisto situates the president’s divisive leadership within the broader historical context of the GOP’s steady creep towards the far right of the political spectrum (a process that accelerated during Obama’s tenure in the White House). Moreover, Kivisto is clear in his definition of populism (and specifically the right-wing brand of populism that is the subject of his investigation) as a form of politics that combines “anti-elitism” with “an exclusionary view of the people” (67). As Jan-Werner Müller notes, “the important thing to grasp about populism is not some vague ‘anti-establishment’ sentiment . . . . Rather, what matters is populists’ anti-pluralism” (106). Perhaps because of its positive associations in the US with the historical “People’s Party”—a grassroots agrarian movement that emerged in the 1890s to challenge the hegemony of Wall Street (Müller 87) [12]—the term “populism” is often colloquially used in neutral or approving terms to designate “any mobilization strategy that appeals to ‘the people’” and that “criticize[s] elites” (Müller 40). (This explains why Paul Krugman exhorts journalists to “stop calling Trump a populist.”) But Kivisto, following Müller, exposes the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of populist actors like Trump, who insist that they are “the only morally legitimate representatives of the people and that, furthermore, only some of the people are actually the real, authentic people who are deserving of support and, ultimately, good government” (Müller 44).

At a time when democracy is increasingly under attack, it’s crucial that commentators are unflinching in their exposure of populism as “a real danger to democracy” (Müller 103), instead of pandering to populists’ self-definition as the authentic voice of the people. The haste with which certain sections of the media have conflated Trump’s Rust Belt rhetoric with the “real concerns” of the white working class shows just how easily populists can take control of the narrative and gain “a monopoly on telling us what really worries citizens” (Müller 107), even though their claims to channel the “will of the people” rely more on symbolic representations of the people’s “true identity” (e.g., Trump’s photo-ops next to flag-waving steelworkers) than on democratic expressions of a group’s “empirically verifiable interests” (Müller 29). Populists’ ability to set the agenda has significant implications for how mainstream politicians interpret the needs of the electorate (and how they gauge their own electability within the democratic system). A case in point is the debate among senior Democrats about how to reboot the party in the post-2016 era—a debate that has arguably been muddied by unreliable “Trump-centered narrative[s]” about the views and preferences of a white working class who have actually been voting Republican in greater numbers since the 1992 presidential election (Carnes and Lupu 6). The temptation to “run after populists” (Müller 112)—i.e., to absorb and co-opt some of their positions as a way of neutralizing their power—is a common but misguided tactic of establishment politicians, who can “never quite catch” their more extreme (and less politically constrained) rivals (112). Attitudinal data collated by McElwee et al. in the wake of the 2016 election show that Obama-to-Trump “switchers” (presumed to be a less loyal segment of Trump’s support base) expressed views that were markedly more conservative than those of Obama-to-Clinton voters [13]—particularly on issues to do with race and gender—leading the authors to conclude that there is little to be gained from tweaking the Party’s platform to accommodate this cohort, which does “not represent the future” of the Democratic Party. By the same token, surveys conducted by Pew Research have indicated that non-college-educated whites (who tend towards social conservatism) make up a larger proportion of the Democratic—or Democratic-leaning—voter base than the 2016 exit polls suggested, prompting some strategists to caution against the temptation to jettison socially conservative white voters in a bid to appeal to a liberal, college-educated base that may actually be smaller than previously thought (Edsall).

While it’s important for party strategists to be attentive to the voting habits of different demographics, it is nonetheless a mistake to infer more generally that the election of a populist like Trump has “at last revealed many citizens’ true preferences, instead of realizing that representation is a dynamic process” and that “not all voters of populist parties can be assumed to be committed anti-pluralists” (Müller 112). Kivisto admits as much when he says, “Beyond the effort to distinguish Trump voters from the rest of the citizenry is an awareness of the fact that those voters who chose Trump at the ballot box did so for a variety of reasons, and their level of enthusiasm for the candidate likewise ranged from the fervor of the base to considerable skepticism at the other end of the continuum” (56). The focus of his study, however, is the “typical” Trump supporter—an older (often retired) Republican voter with a higher-than-average income and a set of cultural values rooted in an authoritarian mindset. While this portrait is not inaccurate per se, it represents an attempt, in Müller’s words, to “shift the discussion to social psychology” (16) and away from the “variety of reasons” for supporting Trump that Kivisto perfunctorily references. Of course, there is no basis for supposing that “these reasons are plausible and should just be accepted at face value” (Müller 16), but there is also little insight to be achieved from reading populist grievances as “‘just emotions’ in the sense of being completely divorced from thought” (16). Kivisto is correct to point out the “emotional valence” of the rightward shift in American politics (61), but his characterization of populist resentment as a “singular political attitude” that prioritizes identity over issues (66) commits the same error that Clinton made when she tried to decouple the cultural rationalizations for Trump’s appeal from the materialist ones. By contrast, Cramer notes from her conversations with conservative Wisconsinites that “people intertwine economic considerations with social and cultural considerations in the interpretations of the world they make with one another” (7). This is true both for lower-income rural residents who worry about making ends meet (a cohort which Kivisto’s study ignores) and for suburban business owners and professionals who “nevertheless talked about their community as a victim of distributive injustice and as being overlooked by decision makers” (139). [14] Whereas Kivisto interprets the antigovernment attitude of right-wing voters as evidence of their attachment to Reaganite neoliberalism (71), Cramer draws a distinction between the ideological preference for smaller government expressed by conservative politicians and the deep-seated mistrust of government found among many red-state voters (150) [15], who believe that “wherever their hard-earned money was going, it was not coming to them” (148). The libertarian instincts of the Tea Party are not necessarily shared by its supporters, many of whom are motivated by a sense of resentment that is at once economic and identity-based (220).

Like Hochschild, Cramer is conscious of the fact that resentment about the distribution of resources encodes racial prejudice “even when race is not mentioned” (86). But one is not entirely reducible to the other, as she explains: “perceptions of who works hard and who is deserving [of resources] are infected with racism . . . . But those notions of distributive justice are intertwined with race—neither separate from nor synonymous with a simple distinction of white versus other” (87). Kivisto discusses the connection between racial intolerance and opposition to federal programmes among Louisiana’s Tea Party supporters, but he interprets these related biases as manifestations of an irrational mindset, suggesting that “they reveal a fundamental incapacity or conscious unwillingness” to grapple with the realities of America’s racist past (65). Having ruled out economic issues as a significant driver of right-wing voter behaviour, he blames Trump supporters’ willingness to perpetuate injustice on a combination of cruelty and wilful blindness: “Thus, while railing against what they see as the unfairness of post-1964 affirmative action programs, they fail to recognize that time, as Columbia University Professor Ira Katznelson puts it, ‘when affirmative action was white’” (65). But, as Cramer reminds us, “This is how the politics of resentment operates—it works through seemingly simple divisions of us versus them, but it has power because in these divisions are a multitude of fundamental understandings: who has power, who has what values and which of those values are right, who gets what, and perceptions of the basic fairness of all of this” (87). While it would be heartening to think that these (mis)understandings could be straightened out by “confronting the historical record” (Kivisto 64), Cramer observes that people tend to interpret their personal circumstances “not as the product of broad social, economic, and political forces” (9) but through the self-serving (and often racially biased) lens of “deservingness” (86). Kivisto’s interpretive model—based on the psychosocial concept of the “authoritarian personality”—risks underestimating the more widespread susceptibility of the voting public to bad faith appeals by populist actors intent on “tapping into divides and nourishing resentment” (Cramer 220). [16] As Cramer points out, “in the realm of public affairs, the distribution of resources is often portrayed as a zero-sum game. There is only so much money to go around. If I allocate it to my group, yours will not get it” (8). Even when the group in receipt of government support is objectively worse off—and subject to long-standing discrimination—the zero-sum political argument often successfully disrupts what should be a straightforward moral case for restitution.

Trump, who is fluent in the language of winners and losers, may be the ultimate master of the “zero-sum game.” It’s the overriding logic that governs his approach to business, international trade, foreign policy, immigration, and indeed race. [17] But this logic is not unique to Trump, nor is it tied to the recent populist wave. Coates points to the deep connections between zero-sum capitalism and the anti-Black racism which became codified in law during the antebellum period of US history. Like Kivisto, Coates rejects the thesis that Trump’s win is merely a reaction to recent economic trends by disgruntled white working-class voters [18], viewing this rationalization of the 2016 election result as a convenient form of displacement by white commentators: “when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class.” He is also exasperated (understandably so) by the interpretive energies lavished on the problems and grievances of “ordinary” white conservatives, while the disproportionate ills that befall non-white Americans are brushed to one side. Though he accepts that racial politics intersect with a variety of economic and social forces (as Cramer and Hochschild skilfully demonstrate), he feels bound to insist that the mere fact of racism’s adulterated form (too often cited in mitigation of its deleterious effects) is “small comfort to the people—black, Muslim, immigrant—who live under racism’s boot.” Speaking about race in relation to other issues, then, can be a way of deferring a conversation about race itself. Nonetheless, Coates’s essay on the Trump presidency traces the origins of white supremacy in the US to a “pan-Caucasian embrace between workers and capitalists” that emerged in tandem with the slave economy in the South. As white indentured servitude was phased out, Coates argues, a “bargain” was forged between wealthy whites and their less privileged counterparts: “The descendants of indenture would enjoy the full benefits of whiteness, the most definitional benefit being that they would never sink to the level of the slave.” Coates is quick to clarify that this bargain—though rooted in the financial systems of slavery and capitalism—was more symbolic than economic in nature. Just as Trump’s rhetorical gestures towards the struggles of American workers offer little in the way of concrete solutions (Konczal) [19], the “ancient bargain” between white oligarchs and white workers offered no protection “from near-slave wages or backbreaking labor to attain them” (Coates), nor did it assuage the fear that this threadbare social contract might unravel under the pressures of a cutthroat market system. The zero-sum logic of America’s early capitalist economy meant that “the dignity accorded to white labor was situational, dependent on the scorn heaped upon [enslaved] black labor.” Through the subjugation of African Americans, the white working class (functioning as a rhetorical device rather than “a real community”) secured its place as the group “closest to America’s aristocratic class” (Coates).

Some commentators have attempted to deflect or downplay Trump’s more egregiously offensive statements by suggesting that his words should be taken “seriously,” but not “literally.” Perhaps this grain-of-salt attitude would be better applied to his economic pitch to middle America, which many commentators have treated as a literal promise (albeit a broken one) to adopt pro-worker policies but which is best understood as an offer to extend what Luke Pagarani calls “the patronage of the powerful” to ordinary American people (understood in the exclusionary sense that Kivisto outlines on page 70). As Katherine Cramer remarks, the Tea Party’s call to “take back our country” from the faceless bureaucracy of the federal government is attractive to a “broad swath of people who believe their lives are buffeted by forces beyond their control that they can’t even observe” (220). What seems like “support for limited government” may in many instances be “support for a kind of government that listens to ‘people like me’” (220)—i.e., leaders who identify with, and advocate for the wellbeing of, their (predominantly white) communities. Of course, Trump does not tailor his message of “jobs, jobs, jobs” to any one racial or ethnic group in particular. He doesn’t need to: even before his notorious equivocation about the violence that unfolded at the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, a majority of non-white voters (and especially African Americans) understood that his pledge to usher in a new golden age of prosperity for the American worker was not made with “people like them” in mind. Trump’s efforts to incorporate tokenistic gestures towards a Black electorate into the stagecraft of his presidency (e.g., at prayer breakfasts and state of the union addresses) cannot conceal the simple fact that real inclusion is anathema to his overarching philosophy of zero-sum. At a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 20 June 2020 (at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests), Trump warned his audience, “If the Democrats gain power then the rioters will be in charge, and no one will be safe, and no one will have control.” This is not quite Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech [20], but Trump’s suggestion that once the Republicans lose the presidency “then the rioters will be in charge” subtly conjures Powell’s inflammatory invocation of the deep-seated fear among white constituents that “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” (Powell). According to this shamelessly divisive rhetoric, equality is neither a goal nor even a plausible expectation: in order for one group to thrive, another must experience subjugation.

Powell, too, couched his racism in the language of concern for “decent, ordinary” people and anchored his apocalyptic forecast of rampant immigration in the granular socioeconomic detail of hospital beds, school places, workplace conditions, and council rates. The effectiveness of Powell’s racist appeal was that it vividly raised the prospect of imminent loss—loss of white national identity, to be sure, but also the loss of a material legacy that came with white privilege. More than fifty years after Powell’s speech, Luke Pagarani observed a comparable fear of material loss among older, white English voters who rejected the progressive manifesto of the former Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in the UK general election of 2019. Sceptical voters “in both more and less affluent areas” of London, Bedford and Milton Keynes, were reportedly turned off by the impression that Corbyn wanted to “invite the whole world to his allotment,” as Pagarani puts it: “The feeling that Corbyn’s loyalties were too wide for a national leader is a materialist concern, because people were worried that he would be profligate and squander the security inherited from times when Britain was more powerful.” Although the pro-Brexit political class talks optimistically of “sunlit uplands” and infinite opportunities, many of their supporters are, in Pagarani’s words, “fixated on the inevitability of scarcity, and the need to guard against naive hope.” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan strikes a similarly pessimistic note underneath its overt boosterism. As Giridharadas’s book suggests, Trump’s “win-losey” attitude (206) helped him to capitalize on a mood of cynicism in certain quarters about the “win-win” benefits of an increasingly mobile and interconnected global society. Tellingly, the Edison Research poll reveals that Trump voters made up 63% of the respondents who said they believed that life for the next generation of Americans would be worse than it is today. The gloomy prospect of an empire in near-terminal decline permeated Trump’s 2017 inauguration speech, which was replete with images of “mothers and children trapped in poverty,” “rusted out factories scattered like tombstones,” and the “sad depletion” of the military. Most significantly, the notion that “the people” (in the populist sense of “real” or “true” Americans) should have an exclusive claim to the protection and beneficence of the nation state was presented by Trump as the very essence of the MAGA philosophy: “At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” [21] Pagarani notes the same conviction among many older English voters that the state has an obligation to act as “their exclusive patron,” and that their proven fealty to Queen and country entitles them (above those they perceive as outsiders) to “claim their share” of an ever-decreasing national pie.

There is much truth to Kivisto’s contention that an authoritarian mindset, nurtured and promoted by small-town communities and conservative institutions, predisposes a person to the “strongman” political style of Donald Trump. But one cannot assume that all supporters of populist politicians like Trump “have not truly accepted the rules of the democratic game” (Müller 112). As Jan-Werner Müller explains, the main appeal of populism (aside from the perks of a clientelist relationship between a leader and his supporters) stems from the “folk theory of democracy,” which centres on the idea that “the people”—conceived not as a diverse and quarrelsome bunch of constituents, but as a cohesive whole—can voice through their democratic representatives a coherent and fully realisable will (76). “One has to be rather obtuse not to see the attraction of such a notion of collectively mastering one’s fate,” Müller remarks (77). Of course, real-world democracy will always fall short of this high bar (because no such common will—or homogenous citizenry—actually exists), yet populists pretend that a perfectible version of democracy, beyond the fallible institutions and electoral disappointments of quotidian politics, is within reach. Ironically, the pursuit of this seductive fantasy that “the people can rule” (76) as a unified entity possessed of a single, unerring will is really just a short cut to authoritarianism, as Americans have found out after four years of Trump. Populist leaders are not interested in democratic expressions of majority opinion (except where the outcomes happen to confirm support for the regime). Even when the polls go against them, they can always fall back on the concept of a “true people” or “silent majority” whose incontestable will they are exclusively licensed to represent. Müller explains the distinction between democracy and populism thusly: “The one assumes, if anything, a people of individuals, so that in the end only numbers (in elections) count; the other takes for granted a more or less mysterious ‘substance’ and the fact that even large numbers of individuals (even majorities) can fail to express that substance properly” (77-78).

Having lost the popular vote in 2016, Donald Trump has poured considerable time and energy into casting pre-emptive doubt on the results of the 2020 election. Moreover, his populist contempt for the carefully balanced powers of the democratic system means that he would likely have little compunction about using institutional instruments such as the courts or the electoral college to manipulate the outcome of an election in his favour. [22] Perhaps that’s why Coates risks inviting accusations of melodrama to declare that the danger of the Trump presidency—which is rooted in the Nixonian aim of defending a white “silent majority”—goes well beyond its immediate effects on Black voters (and on others who have been symbolically excluded from the ranks of the true people) and jeopardizes the entire Republic, including the white communities it purports to protect: “. . . the larger threat [of white exceptionalism] is to white people themselves, the shared country, and even the whole world.” What’s more, Coates worries that President Trump has merely opened the door for a more competent demagogue to walk through: “It does not take much to imagine another politician, wiser in the ways of Washington and better schooled in the methodology of governance—and now liberated from the pretense of antiracist civility—doing a much more effective job than Trump.” Kivisto is similarly perturbed by the systemic threat that the Trump presidency represents to American democracy, but he is somewhat more inclined to hope that the redoubled efforts of a newly energized electorate can bring about an improved democratic culture in the United States (112). Only time will tell whether the divisions laid bare by the election of Donald Trump will heal, or continue to deepen, over the longer term.

 

Notes

[1] The authors of the report cite Cas Mudde’s description of populism as “a thin ideology” that can attach itself to “a variety of different policies and ideologies, including both right- and left-wing variants.” What populists of all political hues have in common is their anti-pluralist stance, i.e., they refuse to accept “the legitimacy of many different groups in society,” claiming instead to represent the will of “a pure people” against the interests of “a corrupt elite” (Kyle and Gultchin).

[2] Carnes and Lupu define working-class individuals as “those who do not hold a college degree and report annual household incomes below the median, as reported by the Census Bureau,” arguing, “A factory worker and a PhD student at Princeton might both earn household incomes below the median, but it would not make sense to say that both are members of the working class” (3). While most of Kivisto’s observations about the socio-economic circumstances of Trump voters rely on income data, he never actually defines what it is he means by the term “working class”—even as he seeks (with good reason) to debunk media claims about a working-class surge for Trump.

[3] This observation is borne out by data published by the Pew Research Center just after the 2016 election. Alec Tyson and Shiva Maniam observe that “Trump won white voters by a margin almost identical to that of Mitt Romney, who lost the popular vote to Barack Obama in 2012. . . . White non-Hispanic voters preferred Trump over Clinton by 21 percentage points (58% to 37%), . . . [whereas] Romney won whites by 20 percentage points in 2012 (59% to [Obama’s] 39%).”

[4] Commenting on the research by McElwee et al., Washington Post journalist Philip Bump notes that 11% of Black Obama voters sat out the 2016 election, while 12% of white Obama voters switched to Trump in 2016.

[5] With the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, the subject of structural racism in the US has taken on a renewed level of urgency.

[6] The Democratic Party’s decision to put forward American Everyman Joe Biden as their candidate for the 2020 presidential election has not deterred Trump from branding the Democrats as left-wing extremists who would tax Americans into penury and let anarchists loose on the streets. At a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 20 June 2020, Trump tried to discredit Biden—a lifelong centrist—as a “helpless puppet of the radical left” (a barb that echoes Hillary Clinton’s 2016 quip about Trump’s weak position as Putin’s “puppet”).

[7] It may seem perverse to talk about Donald Trump’s “moral authority”; however, as politics professor Jan-Werner Müller explains, populism is, by definition, “a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional—people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior” (19-20). Thus, populist leaders like Trump derive their moral authority from their purported ability to “divine the proper will of the people” (29).

[8] Kivisto only briefly addresses the incongruity between the Tea Party’s professed antipathy to state interventionism and Trump’s protectionist stance on trade (78, 105). He simply states that former Tea Party activists who gravitated towards Trump when their own movement began to lose steam were somehow able to shift their economic philosophy “seamlessly”—and “without apparently noticing”—from “being staunch free trade proponents to embracing economic protectionism” (78). However, his observation does little to explain what inspired Trump to seek electoral success by selling a message of economic nationalism to ostensibly “staunch free trade proponents.”

[9] Carnes and Lupu note that it was the unorthodox content of Trump’s speeches—rather than “the actual behavior of white working-class voters” (2)—that became the focus for academics wishing to advance the dubious theory that Trump garnered an “unprecedented” level of support for the Republican Party among white working-class voters (3).

[10] It’s worth remembering that Trump himself has been a financial beneficiary of the increasingly integrated global marketplace that he so loudly denounced on the campaign trail. To undercut charges of hypocrisy, he poses as a “poacher-turned-gamekeeper” figure whose insider knowledge of a rotten system becomes its own unique selling point. Thus, he claims to be alert to the cosy relationship between politicians and the “financial elite” precisely because he himself was once a political donor. And, as Konczal wryly reminds us, Trump’s independent wealth offers a supposedly cast-iron assurance that his political favour “can’t be bought”—a logical leap that is both rhetorically seductive and manifestly untrue.

[11] When General Mattis and Cohn teamed up to persuade him of the deep connections between foreign policy and the domestic economy, Trump took the bean counter’s view that US allies were nothing more than “protectorates” intent on taking maximum financial advantage of American largesse (Woodward 223).

[12] The People’s Party—or the Populists, as they became known—did not actually fit the definition of populism advanced by Müller (85). Although they claimed to represent the interests of the “plain people” against monopoly power, they did not, according to Müller, make the kind of exclusivist claims to representation that characterize populist politicians (90).

[13] Interestingly, the political views of so-called Obama-to-nonvoters—a group that forms part of an “alienated” category of citizens identified by Kivisto (79)—are revealed to tack well to the left of those held by Obama-to-Trump voters but are also noticeably to the right of those expressed by Obama-to-Clinton voters (except on the issue of increasing the federal minimum wage—a policy also favoured by a majority, albeit a smaller one, of Obama-to-Trump voters) (McElwee et al.).

[14] Cramer’s study (which, along with Hochschild’s, supplements Kivisto’s analysis of right-wing populist attitudes) does not focus on Trump or his supporters but looks at how the urban-rural divide in the swing state of Wisconsin fed into the victory of right-wing Republican Scott Walker in the gubernatorial election of 2010. What she terms the “people-in-power-are-out-of-touch-with-ordinary-Wisconsinites attitude” was observable across socio-economic lines, though its expression was somewhat less intense among the suburban middle classes (140).

[15] Cramer notes that although “antigovernment sentiment is not the same as support for limited government,” the Republican Party under Reagan exploited voter hostility to specific government initiatives (e.g., property tax increases during a recession) to extrapolate a mandate for less government intervention overall (150).

[16] Cramer concedes that some individuals are inherently more predisposed than others to view the world in terms of “us/them divisions,” but she resists attributing this psychological tendency to particular group identities (9).

[17] Trump’s most recent attempt at stoking division—following the protests and civil unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death—has been to suggest that the American public can have law and order or wholesale police reform but not both.

[18] Coates acknowledges that a majority of white working-class voters supported Trump over Clinton but situates this fact in the context of Trump’s “dominance” across virtually every category of white voter.

[19] Trump’s tax cuts brought modest benefits to working- and middle-class Americans and were designed to boost job growth by lowering America’s corporate tax rates. Republican voters (including those on modest incomes) tend to believe that a supply-side approach to economic growth will be more advantageous to them than an increase in government investment, though as Arlie Russell Hochschild points out, recent research from Princeton has shown that “the U.S. economy has grown faster under Democratic presidents, who have also produced more jobs, lowered the unemployment rate, generated higher corporate profits and investments, and seen higher stock market returns” (261). Even allowing for the fact that “some of the correlation is due to factors outside a president’s control” (261), this is a notable finding.

[20] Enoch Powell was a Conservative member of the British parliament who, in 1968, made a speech condemning mass immigration to the UK and predicting large-scale unrest akin to the wars described in Virgil’s Aeneid: “like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’” Interestingly, Powell’s speech was a clarion call to avoid what he saw as the inevitable racial and ethnic tensions within America’s diverse polity: “That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect.”

[21] Trump’s high-minded pledge to serve and protect the American people has been somewhat undermined by his administration’s disastrous mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. The New York Times notes that the White House spent several crucial months attempting to shirk responsibility for providing a joined-up federal response to the pandemic, even as Trump himself adopted the posture of a “wartime president” whose authority in the midst of the crisis was “total” (Shear et al.).

[22] Writing for The Atlantic, Barton Gellman sets out his theory of how the Trump campaign might attempt to influence the appointment of “loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority.” Though the prospect seems far-fetched to some, Gellman argues that Trump’s consistent portrayal of the election as “rigged” may create the conditions necessary to permit Republican state lawmakers to “set aside the popular vote” and choose electors that more “properly” reflect the results of their states. Gellman’s conversation with a Trump-campaign legal adviser reveals that such an anti-democratic manoeuvre “would be framed in terms of protecting the people’s will.”

 

Works Cited

Brody, David. “In Donald Trump, Evangelicals Have Found their President.” New York Times. New York Times, 24 Feb. 2018. Web.

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